I have always been fascinated by the condition known as idiot savant, whereby a person can be highly skilled in one specific talent (like mathematics or painting), while remaining almost completely helpless when it comes to performing common, everyday tasks like getting dressed or pouring a bowl of cereal. How, I’ve always wondered, could a person with such obvious intelligence and/or motor skills not be able to perform the most basic chores of daily existence? How could the same person who is capable of calculating upper level algebraic equations in their head not be able to tell time on a digital clock? And then, as with so many things in my life, this, mystery, too was finally solved–once I had children.
Not that I can now claim to understand the “savant” part of the equation any better: it’s not like my children are writing theorems in their spare time. (In fact, the introduction of double digit multiplication into Clementine’s fourth grade classroom recently led her to announce, upon arriving back home, “Well, that’s it: I’m doomed.” It was refreshing to see that instead of waiting for life to beat her down, she has instead taken a proactive approach and given up on life early). No, unfortunately, my children’s role in providing me with newfound understanding of this condition has been more “idiot” than “savant.”
The fact is, that while my children are normally quite dexterous and clever, they also have a knack for being completely undone by tasks as simple as opening dresser drawers, putting on shoes, and placing socks in the dirty clothes hamper. Fortunately, I can take comfort in knowing that in this they are not alone: judging by what I have seen and heard in other families, this seeming reversal of skills–where a previously competent child reverts to a semi-vegetative state upon being asked to perform household chores–is a common enough malady that it has earned a name of its own: idiot enfant.
The odd thing is that, although very common, idiot enfant appears to hardly ever have been studied. (A quick search of leading medical journals will turn up nothing under this name, I can assure you). Perhaps this is because of the affliction’s transient nature: it has a tendency to disappear at seemingly random times. For example: the case of a child who, while in the throes of an idiot enfant episode, suddenly “forgets” how to put on their shoes when they are told it is now time to go to the dentist; strangely enough, an immediate remission may be brought about by something as simple as changing the word “dentist” to “candy store”.
Or there’s the case of the child who, despite have spent the previous week very competently negotiating shuttles, airports and attending an out of state camp all on her own, upon returning home can’t seem to remember how to use the front door, and stands there kicking it in helpless rage. (This is also the same child who will later storm off to bed insisting, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to get a job and live on my own”, and yet will not, in the grumpiness of the following morning, be able to pour her own cereal into a bowl.)
My only hope is that someday this heart-breaking condition will get the attention it deserves, and children all over the world will no longer have to face the humiliation of telling their mothers that the cereal bowl they were asked to rinse out must remain dirty because they have “forgotten how to turn on the water.” As far as I’m concerned, this couldn’t happen soon enough: it appears that the condition may be catching: how else could you explain a man who has spent at least ten years of his adult life as a bachelor suddenly “forgetting” that colors and whites get washed separately?